Famed virtuoso jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who pioneered bebop music and was nicknamed “Yardbird” or simply “Bird” because of a quirk of fate, envisaged a world of classical music and jazz united. He admired, and even met, avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse. Composer Daniel Schnyder, a jazz saxophonist whose music combines these two elements, and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly, both in their Seattle Opera debuts, have done a creditable job of conveying the jazz artist’s lifework in their chamber opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, performed in commemoration of this year’s centennial of Parker’s birth.

Joshua Stewart (Charlie Parker) © Sunny Martini
Joshua Stewart (Charlie Parker)
© Sunny Martini

The work has generated a great deal of interest from both the opera and the jazz communities in Seattle, with local jazz station KNKX broadcasting a spoken and sung interview with lead tenor Joshua Stewart, who called jazz his Herzblut or “lifeblood.” Stewart praised Parker, whose namesake Birdland Jazz Club still remains active in New York City, as an inspiration for young musicians. 

Told in 21-scenes of flashback after Parker’s death through the eyes of the all-important women in his life, the work is dramatically reminiscent of last season’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Musically, however, this opera is quite different in its compositional character; the ensembles and arias reflect elements of jazz with stylistic similarities to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, but with minimal melody and maximum dissonance.

Joshua Stewart (Charlie Parker) and Angela Brown (Addie Parker) © Sunny Martini
Joshua Stewart (Charlie Parker) and Angela Brown (Addie Parker)
© Sunny Martini

The cast, which included a number of Seattle Opera debuts, was consistently strong, both vocally and dramatically. All of the leading roles require considerable athleticism, and each of these outstanding singers delivered impressively. As “king of saxophone” Charlie Parker, New Orleans native Joshua Stewart’s clarion tenor projected superbly, with spot-on operatic placement from the low to high ranges and in some notable Mozartian flourishes, poignant soul style, and deftness. He handled the stratospheric tessitura and dramatic demands of this non-stop tour de force with such great proficiency that the audience practically raised the roof with their applause at the end.

In the significant role of Parker’s mother Addie, Angela Brown filled the hall with her full, lush lyric soprano. Her instrument is so powerful and robust that, while Stewart generally carried the show, Brown at times stopped the show with her commanding voice, buoyant, vivacious manner, and dramatic authoritativeness. Baritone Jorell Williams played the part of Parker’s best friend Dizzy Gillespie, with whom Parker created bebop. The “Bebop-Freedom” duet, “You are the beep, I am the bop”, in which the two envision the as-yet uncreated bebop sound, was a highlight of the evening, its “message to the people” one that remains relevant. “Freedom!” Williams performed with convincing dramatic comedic skill and great vocal strength; one would have liked to hear more of his mellifluous voice.

Jorell Williams (Dizzy Gillespie) © Philip Newton
Jorell Williams (Dizzy Gillespie)
© Philip Newton

The other women in Parker’s life, his wives (soprano Shelly Traverse as Chan Parker, soprano Jennifer Cross as Doris Parker, and mezzo Chrystal E. Williams as Rebecca Parker) as well as mezzo Audrey Babcock as Parker’s friend and patron, Nica, each sang with maximum power and great control, especially in their difficult upper registers. Debuting conductor Kelly Kuo skillfully handled the well-selected 24-piece ensemble in the enormously complex score.

According to Schnyder, Parker, which consists mostly of ensembles and arias, is not a jazz opera per se, nor is it meant to be extemporaneous like Parker’s music. However, one would have liked to hear more melody and less strident repeated motifs. Wimberly’s libretto captured the intrigue of Parker’s life and effectively incorporated the “scat” elements characteristic of the jazz and bebop genres. The result was a well-organized progression of scenes and music that take the listener on a lively, thought-provoking journey through the life of a brilliant, erratic innovator who was a major influence in transforming 20th century American music.

Shelly Traverse (Chan Parker) © Sunny Martini
Shelly Traverse (Chan Parker)
© Sunny Martini

Ron Daniels’ stage direction was effective and dynamic, with little or no lag in the action. Characters moved briskly or languorously, depending on the stages of the plot, and integrated well with each other, even in the non-singing roles. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez created a visually authentic vision of Birdland and other locations involved in the lengthy time period encompassing the timeline of Parker’s story, from the 1920s through the mid-1950s. The unit set, which featured dramatic images fixed on larger than life letters spelling out “Birdland,” cages containing symbolic golden birds, and tables and chairs that fulfilled multiple uses, changed as needed to portray the action. Costume Designer Emily Rebholz dressed the characters simply but authentically. 

Donald Byrd’s choreography, nimbly performed by Seattle Opera principal dancer Mikhail Calliste, heightened the overall drama of the piece. The concept of a madman’s wild dance symbolizing the pain of asylum inmates overall, and Parker in particular, was a brilliant one, and the audience was both pleased and astonished at the spectacle.

***11